2014 New York City Marathon (Arun Kristian Das/Fox5NY.com)
NEW YORK - Every year on the first Sunday in November, tens of thousands of athletes line up on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and then head to a faraway finish line in Central Park.
Runners and spectators alike cry, cheer, smile, squeal, gasp, and more on the day of the New York City Marathon. It is a day of triumph, achievement, and also heartbreak and disappointment.
Only a handful of athletes have a real shot at winning and just two runners and two wheelchair athletes are crowned as champions. So what motivates the 99.9 percent of participants who know they won't win?
Yes, several of them are pro or semi-pro runners hoping to one day join the upper-echelon. Others try to run fast enough to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, which has time standards. And many seek to place high in their age group.
That still leaves tens of thousands of runners and walkers who eagerly traverse 26 miles, 385 yards for reasons other than prize money and sporting glory.
I asked marathoners: Why are you running the New York City Marathon and why is it so special?
"Because I can!" said Julie Huntington of Queens, New York.
More than two years ago, she broke her tibia and fibula in a freak accident. After surgery, she was in so much pain that she didn't know if she'd run again. Her surgeon at Mt. Sinai put her back together with a plate, six screws, and two pins.
"As I healed, it took time to embrace the scars and metal pieces in my bones, both visible to the naked eye upon close inspection of my ankle," Huntington, 41, said. "The process of learning to walk again was both challenging and painful. I owe so much to the incredible crew of Physical Therapists at NY Custom PT who helped me to trust my body, to get strong again, to set realistic expectations, and to believe in myself."
On Sunday, she will shoot for her first marathon since the accident and her sixth overall.
"It sounds silly, but running New York City is like a party on legs," Huntington said. "I think I smiled the whole way the last time I ran it."
Zara Harding began running marathons a decade ago as a way to raise money for charities.
"But also to get in shape and set a good example for my four children," Harding, 38, said. "I believe that endurance training models traits like healthy living, discipline, time management, dedication, perseverance, and working hard to attain a goal."
The Livermore, California, resident has also set a big goal. As a member of the Fifty States Marathon Club, she is seeking to run at least one marathon in every state. So far, she has crossed 20 off the list.
And what makes the New York City Marathon special?
"So many things," she said. "The course support. The enthusiastic spectators. The iconic landmarks."
Other runners echoed the sentiment about support along the course.
Howie Kohn, 65, of Niskayuna, New York, said the "million spectators" really make the race.
And Xavier Emery, 33, of Queens, said that everyone cheers for every runner.
"When you run it you can tell it's a special moment," said Emery, originally from Le Mans, France. "The energy of the whole town around this race!"
Health is definitely high on the list for many runners.
Jessica Skarzynski of South Amboy, New Jersey, said she'd been overweight for most of her life.
"I never thought I'd run a mile, never mind a marathon," she said. "After losing more than 100 pounds and finally building up the strength to run long distances, the New York City Marathon is my victory lap!"
New York is special because of familiarity. Skarzynski, 34, said she visited the city almost every weekend when she was growing up.
Many runners run with their loved ones in their hearts and minds.
Meredith Reccoppa of Howell, New Jersey, said she runs in honor of her sister, who died suddenly just before the 2015 marathon.
"That year she had secretly planned to have my whole family there to surprise me," Reccoppa said. "I ran that year—every mile in memory of her. This year, I will do the same."
A veteran of 12 marathons, Reccoppa, 37, said the crowds and energy make the New York City Marathon "a race like no other," a reference to a bestselling book about it.
Meanwhile, marathon newbie Kristine Ankner McConnell picked New York City for her debut at the distance.
"It only felt right running for The American Heart Association in honor of my dad who passed away due to complications with COPD and congestive heart failure," the East Rockaway, New York, resident said. "It's the greatest city with the greatest people who come together for something that brings a lot of attention to so many great charities."
New York City Marathon attracts "all types of runners coming together for one common goal," McConnell, 37, noted.
Justin Gerald of Long Island City is running Sunday to challenge himself.
"My very best running came at worse points in my professional and romantic life," Gerald, 31, said. "And now that everything else is going well, can I still keep pushing myself?"
He said the race is special because New York is home.
Indeed, for another New Yorker, the race is a way to bid farewell.
"After living in the U.S. for 12 years, and six of these years in New York City, I am returning to my home country Germany at the end of November," Janine Jansen said. "New York City will always have a special place in my heart. It is here that I started running and learned to love the sport."
Jansen, 33, said the organizers, volunteers, and spectators all make the marathon a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"I cannot think of a better way of getting a last tour of New York City and saying goodbye to this great city, one borough at a time," she said.
Shannon Chenoweth, 39, of Orlando, Florida, is coming to run in her "favorite city in the world."
Indeed, love for New York seems to be an almost universal sentiment among marathoners, regardless of hometown.
And why wouldn't it be?
After all, Chenoweth said, "New York is the city of dreams."
Arun Kristian Das is a producer for Fox5NY.com and related social media platforms. On November 5, 2017, he will run his second New York City Marathon because marathon day brings out his best self.